Agriculture policy affects the public’s health in many ways, not just influencing the quality and quantities of what we eat, but through many other pathways as well, including regional economics, household finances, air and water pollution and community quality-of-life. To date, few HIAs have examined the links between agriculture and health.
The largest and probably most widely known piece of agricultural policy legislation is the federal farm bill. This legislation, which is re-authorized approximately every five years, includes funding for many programs including food stamps, land conservation and farmers markets, and most notably an array of direct and indirect agricultural subsidy programs. These subsidies in turn influence the availability and prices of various agricultural commodities, eventually shaping the price and composition of foods. Federal farm bills have also established various labeling regulations, such as food product origins and the use of the term “organic.”
Another important piece of federal agriculture policy is the federal school lunch program. Growing out of a program established in the 1930s to take surplus food commodities out of the marketplace and thus reduce downward pressure on prices paid to farmers, the school lunch program now helps provide more than 3o million lunches to school children each day at a cost of $8.3 billion per year. While there continues to be some tension between the goals of supporting agricultural commodity prices and providing healthy, balanced nutrition to low income children, there has been increasing emphasis on nutrition guidelines of school lunches.
State-level agriculture policies largely parallel federal policies, including farm support programs, school lunch funding, farm land preservation, soil and water conservation programs and support for agriculture research. While direct subsidies are less common, indirect subsidies such as promotion of specific products and support for direct marketing of agricultural products (e.g. farmers markets and farm-to-school programs) are common.
Sometimes the health implications of agricultural policies are obvious, for instance when school lunch guidelines are rewritten to emphasize more fruits and vegetables and allow less fat and sugar. The effects of other agricultural policies can be exceedingly complex. Since commodity prices comprise only a small percentage of the consumer price of most food products, reducing subsidies paid to farmers for products, such as corn and beef, that health guidelines suggest Americans should eat less of and increasing subsidies for healthier crops such as fresh fruits and vegetables, might not alter consumer prices or consumption. Agriculture policies can certainly affect consumer food prices, but these effects can be complex and little understood, such as the removal of grain reserve requirements in the 1996 farm bill that set the stage for sharp price increases after implementation of ethanol mandates in 2005 and weather-related drops in wheat production a few years later (Ray, 2008).
- Crop subsidy programs
- School lunch and farm-to-school programs
- Bio-energy projects and incentives
- Farmers market promotion
- Zoning and financing for farmland preservation
- Pesticide and herbicide regulation
- Water pricing
- Soil and habitat conservation programs